If you know ultra running, you know who Rob Krar is. That probably wasn’t the case a few years ago when, according to some, he appeared out of nowhere to blitz the ultra running world and is now a back to back Western States 100 champion.
Personally I subscribe to the notion that people don’t just appear out of nowhere, it’s an excuse mainstream media use to pass off ignorance. Rob had ‘mountains’ of running pedigree before entering the world of ultras, plus it also does a disservice to the years of hard work and training that he would have undertaken to get to that point of ‘coming from nowhere’.
He should be highly commended for helping to bring these out into the open, which in turn helps people understand better, as well as help others through it too. Part of the issue with mental health is taking to step to talk about it, but to also have someone who can simply listen. Our society is not great at admitting things are not alright – it’s seen as a sign of weakness and instead we try to bottle things up. We have some of the highest suicide rates in young people globally right now because of mental health issues, so taking that all important first step and talking about it is critical.
The flip side is that I was extremely wary of not wanting to appear intrusive into what is a very personal topic for Rob. He doesn’t know me from Adam, but it’s an essential part of his character and who he is. It’s what has made him who he is today, the fabric and DNA of his results.
In Christina his wife, he has someone who provides that rock and pillar of support, and who has helped him comes to terms with how to handle things when times get tough. Ultra running too has helped Rob to understand how he deals with his ‘episodes’ as he puts it, and it’s this area of the interview which captivated me the most.
I’ve always said that if what we write helps one person, I’m a happy man. So it’s with huge excitement that I’ve written these words, knowing that from someone like Rob, I can learn much and hopefully help to translate his offerings of wisdom too.
We focus first on Rob’s time post-Western States and what the coming months will hold for him. Then we delve deeper into how his life has evolved over the last few years, and how he uses what he’s learned from ultra running to manage the depression that visits him.
How has life been after Western States? What’s the rest and recovery been like?
I didn’t run a step for seven days after Western States, but did two mountain bike rides to get the legs moving again. After that, I was straight into a running camp and managed to get through around 15 miles, but it was very chilled and relaxed. Having been through so much injury in the past, I’m very aware of what I need to do to make sure my body is properly rested after a race like Western States. Around the fourth week, I will get back into the heavier miles though as I work towards UTMB. Typically I’ll be six days on and one day off, but may stretch that to 10 days on. It’s important though to make sure the mind rests as well as the body. I no longer feel guilty about taking time off and allowing myself to catch up on life too.
You’re headed over to UTMB in a few months. What’s the plan for the lead up to that and how you’ll approach the race?
One of my goals in life is to step out of my comfort zone – this race does exactly that. I am pretty meticulous in my preparation for races and maintain a high degree of intensity. But I do love the sense of ‘unstructuredness’ that my training takes too. It might sound crazy, but I like ‘winging it’ when I run a race for the first time. That’s the approach I took for my first Western States, so I’m not getting to France too early to check out the course.
I enjoy running races ‘blind’ for the first time. But I do have a very concrete gameplay for the race as far as my training goes, which will be a reverse of the routes I ran for WSER100. There the focus was on climbing and hiking grades, while running hard down gentle forest road to thrash the legs. For UTMB I’ll run roads the easy but then run down the technical grades to mimic the course.
When it comes to racing I’m super focused but I don’t plan too far ahead. I’ll look at what my weaknesses are 12 weeks out from the race, and then start to build sessions to combat those into my daily and weekly regime. My day-to-day training however is very fluid, so much so that I might not know what I’m doing 2-3 days out from now. I might start a run and if I’m not feeling it, I will do easier run.
Now you’ve got a very handy road marathon PB (2:25). Mike Wardian wants to know if you will ever run another road marathon?
I think it’s safe to say that I’ve found peace and love on the trails. Road for me beats up the body too bad. I’ve embraced the trails and been welcomed into the community so much, so I’m staying firmly on the dirt tracks.
Who do you enjoy racing with/against?
I like to find the most competitive races, this is important to me, to be racing against the best. This year’s WSER100 was great, plus also a chance to race a lot of people for the first time too. I do enjoy sizing people up (in a good way), and be very focused on looking at what their strengths and weaknesses are.
At my first Western States, I really enjoyed running with Dylan Bowman, we’ve run a lot of miles together and my first time there was again running blind on the course. Dylan was great and telling me what to expect and where along the course. His willingness to share was amazing, he’s truly a solid person and someone I love running with.
In terms of your future plans over and above racing, how do you go about maintaining longevity in the sport? The impacts of overtraining syndrome have been pretty well documented in recent months.
I’m very cognisant of looking after my body, particularly when you hear and see of many top athletes training and racing themselves into the ground. I try to stay in the moment as much as I can, but I can also see the 5-10 year plan I have for staying in ultra running. I certainly want to be at the competitive end of the sport for the next five years or so, but beyond that it’s up to me and how I manage my body that will dictate my success.
Come mid-December for example, I take two to three months off where I’ll go ski mountaineering. It’s a great break from the pounding of running and a good spiritual rejuvenation.
Now you’re on sabbatical from your job as a pharmacist, how’s that been and how has it allowed you to focus more on your running.
It’s been a very welcome break. I was doing the graveyard shift and working nights for the best part of twelve years, so I took a six-month leave of absence to explore what mind and body are capable of. Last year was a great year for me in terms of my racing results, but trying to manage the intensity of training while maintaining happiness in my life both in my job and more importantly with my wife was a challenge.
If I’m really honest, part of me is frightened at going back to work. It’s been well documented the impacts of working nights on mental health, so for now, I’m just trying to put the pieces together and stay in the moment and soak everything in.
You talk very openly about ‘the hole’ you place yourself into in the final quarter of a race? How has it helped you to deal with the challenges you’ve faced in your personal life?
I’m still learning as to how that dark place I experience in running relates to the depression I feel. It’s been a crazy ride with so many different pieces of the puzzle. I think where it starts to come together is meeting my wife Christina at a race in Colorado. She has listened and helped me to be able to talk about what’s happening and the episodes that occur. This was a really important first step for me.
We all know that in an ultra, it doesn’t feel great at times and at the end of a race – it hurts. Too often though we try to fight the pain and ignore it – we block it out. This hole or pain that we feel in ultras is so unique. It’s a pain that I’d never experienced before, but it’s something that I can relate to how I feel sometimes. How I deal with it in an ultra is to work with it instead of against it. There’s a real sense of peace when my mind and body are hurting the most.
When I used to fall ‘into the hole’, for so long I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to do. Through ultras I’ve learned that ‘the hole’ I experience, is a similar feeling to the hole I sometimes fall into in life. It’s through ultras that I’ve learned to control and embrace it, using it as an asset. It was my stepping stone towards dealing with my depression. When I allow myself to fall into ‘the hole’, it’s when I’m doing some of my deepest and most purposeful thinking.
When you think about it, it’s a fascinating experience to run 100 miles. One hundred miles is such a long way to go, but yet, I know I won’t reach ‘the hole’ until anywhere between 60 to 80 miles. So I have between 10 and 14 hours of anticipation and that journey of getting there just fascinates me so much. The more you embrace the pain, the more you learn about what your mind and body is capable of, the better you can translate that into your everyday life.
For me, this was a big interview and one that doesn’t come along often.
I came away feeling inspired and having learned something. I’m sure many of us know someone who has suffered or is suffering from mental illness. It was these last pieces of the conversation that really intrigued and inspired me to want to understand what else I could do for those I know.
This wasn’t an easy article to write. Getting the tone correct and being sympathetic to the topic at hand was hard. I don’t want to be overly intrusive into Rob’s life – that’s not my place – yet understanding what he goes through and how he deals with it, offers many of us the opportunity to learn more.
Subconsciously, I wrote an article on the Art of Suffering earlier last week. At the time, the interview with Rob wasn’t lined up, but it’s uncanny the main message from that article is exactly the way in which Rob works with his feelings and ‘the hole’.
We have to embrace.
Embracing the feeling is the all important factor here. For too long, many people suffering with mental illness try to hide it away for one reason or another through no fault of their own. It takes a brave first step (or a fantastic partner), to help you understand what you need to do to fully embrace those feelings.
By fully embracing what is happening to you, means you can go along for the ride.
It’s a bumpy one. It can also be highly unpleasant too.
But it’s what becomes you and your fabric.
I don’t think it’s any secret that Rob’s amazing success in running ultras is down not just to the training, dedication and hard work, but also to those experiences he feels when he’s in ‘the hole’.
It’s through the love and support of his wife and those around him, that has made him understand how to cope and to use that to his advantage.
It is why he is what he is.
It’s why he wins ultras and has an incredible record in doing so. Rob draws upon personal affliction and uses it in a positive manner to succeed.
This is why Rob Krar has so much more to offer ultra running that just running.